On NPR just now, I listened to a story about unemployment benefits coming to an end. This, naturally, concerned people who were on those benefits. As they pointed out, unemployment does not only help individuals. The benefits help a community. Money from these benefits goes to businesses, goes to mutual aid, to the baseline importance of making sure that people remain in homes and not thrown onto the street. When that funding is cut off, what little social safety net there is in this country falls out, leading to one more person with housing or food insecurity; if that person is lucky, they’ll have friends or family they can stay with and, thus, cling to society in one way or another. If they’re not lucky, then they’re on the street – a difficult situation to be in, not least because you lose access to an address, which means you lose access to banks, to utilities, to credit lines, etc.
The right wing will, often, try and point out that this is why saving is important. Well, saving is a middle class and up dream. For people in the situation where they have to pay ½ – ⅔ of their income to rent, saving is a nice-to-have. Food, transport, healthcare – those are the immediate concerns. You can’t think about retirement if you’re too concerned about what’s directly in front of you – and if you can think about retirement, you can’t do anything about it. Because, again, you’re at risk of being tossed out of your house because now the Supreme Court has ruled that the eviction moratorium cannot be extended.
Landlords everywhere lick their greasy, parasitic lips and see profit.
But all of that is not why I wanted to write this. No, what I heard after the unemployment benefits story is what triggered this: The broadcast pivoted from this to a chipper announcer saying: “Accidentally stepping on your dog is the worst! You’re not paying attention to where you walk and suddenly, you’re trodding on Fido!” The pivot was enough to almost give whiplash. In the words of a friend of mine: “Pleasant news to drink a latte to, while you’re in your BMW on the way to Whole Foods or the gym in the morning.”
It is, I think, a microcosm of why the United States will not last much longer – at least as we all grew up thinking about it. The US will likely continue, but its form will have changed so drastically, the security that we like to tout will, likely, be completely obliterated, and, frankly, we will be surpassed in happiness, wealth, and security by other, less self-destructive countries.
How in the hell did I get there, you may be wondering. Well, there is a very pronounced desire in this country – specifically by the Democrats – to do the absolute bare minimum and then pivot away, thinking that the job is done and things will take care of themselves. In our example above, NPR runs a solid piece about the problems that we’ll face as unemployment benefits end, as people lose their safety nets, and more and more wealth gets concentrated in the upper echelons of society, who already have all of the wealth.* And then, as if a producer realized that would unnerve their audience and, thus, potentially impact their donation flow, the tone shifts to twee, as if something clever just happened in a Wes Anderson movie.
This twee tone is, of course, something I cannot handle with NPR. Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me may be a wonderful show if you’re upper middle-class and don’t read political theory, or think critically about the news, but the tone of the hosts – that light mocking, that “Gee, isn’t life just weird sometimes – reminds me of Portland’s Ted Wheeler, who wore a “Gentrification Is Weird” shirt on the campaign trail years ago, and somehow keeps getting elected. NPR lives and breathes on this stuff. I’ve lost count of the news pieces about, say, olive oil manufacturing or slice-of-life bullshit that appeals to people who have Strong Thoughts™ about IKEA or gardening, but can’t be asked to stop voting for people who back cops and landlords.
This whole thing, this problem, is what’s going to cause us more problems in America than all of the Mitch McConnells of the world. See, as long as the center and center-left approach the world like this, as long as, immediately after a huge media conglomerate runs good piece about why benefits ending is a bad thing and then segues into a cute piece about dogs instead of, say, discussing the voting records of Congress reps on the matter, or talking about what can be done to mitigate the problem, then we’re fucked. People will continue thinking that things aren’t really that bad. They’ll continue thinking that tent cities can’t possibly pop up in their city, or that their school boards won’t be invaded by QAnon adherents. They’ll keep thinking that these are problems for Other People to consider. They’ll keep thinking that these problems are far away and, thus, they won’t need to pay attention to local elections, or that they can stand on the sidelines as literal fascists invade state capitols.
It is, in short, the problem in any liberal democracy. When people become very comfortable, they lose the perspective necessary to make them realize that their comfort is not permanent. They think that they’ll be fine if things fall apart. If they make enough, they might. But chances are, they won’t. They’ll have to contend with the fact that, soon enough, their city’s housing prices will skyrocket, because everyone’s in tech now. As their housing prices skyrocket, so too will groceries, or transportation. And as the prices of all of these rise – and as their wages stagnate, because unions and co-ops are for factory workers and the poors, don’t you know – their relative security will fall. And, soon enough, they’ll look at their budget and, even if they’re making over the median wage for their city, they’ll start to wonder just where the money’s going every year. And, once that happens, it will be that more of a shock when they have to think about what to do if they can’t afford a roof over their heads.
That, there, brings us to another problem. If you spend your time with mindbleach and not thinking about the systems we have in place – and I mean really thinking, critically, and considering that you yourself are part of the destruction inherent in what we like to call “late-stage capitalism” by not actively making things better – then you’ll be completely unprepared to deal with these problems when they come up.
To be clear: I am not advocating that people become preppers. I am advocating that people take a hard look at American society, realize that it cannot continue like this, and start studying up on resiliency. I am advocating that people take pointers from Anarchist thinkers – the kinds that advocate for local-scale cooperatives and communities, not, like, fucking BreadTube or whatever. I am advocating that, while people do both of those things, they consider what they can do to mitigate the disaster we’re facing. That could be getting involved in your local Democrats organization and undertaking the Sisyphean task of wresting control of it from rich white people with nothing else to do, or it could be starting up neighborhood associations that do more than think about how to keep minorities out of your ZIP code. Whatever the role you take, it is important that you deeply, deeply consider the fact that America is well on a road to a dark future.
After the last election, leftists on Twitter were looking at a bittersweet victory. No one wanted Trump to win a second term. Everyone was concerned that a Biden victory would effectively kill all the mainstream organizing momentum that had been gained in the latter two years of the Trump presidency. Now, looking around, it’s hard to think that hasn’t been the case. Vast swaths of the center and center-left have gone back to brunch. The people who marched hand in hand with anarchists and called for defunding or – in the case of those liberals who got it for even a moment – abolition of the prison-industrial complex are now looking at Portland and wondering why the cops aren’t doing anything about the homeless problem.
Things will, likely, continue to deteriorate. America does not have the resiliency to protect its population from 21st century capitalism; we don’t have the infrastructure to protect ourselves from the imploding climate; we sure as hell don’t have the ethics or mental fortitude to protect ourselves from rampaging fascists. The only way we can get that resilience is to take steps on an individual level. We can read boring political philosophy (yes, even if it won’t make us money). We can build networks to help each other outside of the exchange of currency. Alongside all of this, those of us who have the energy can attempt to rescue the Democrats from their own inertia.
It is, of course, important to have a dose of mindbleach on hand. If you were to spend all of your waking hours doing what I’ve been ranting about, you’d be a miserable person. We all need dog pictures. We all need that dose of feel-good-vibes. But please, for the love of God, join me in being very infuriated that NPR lacks the follow-through to have a slam-dunk win of following up a piece on unemployment benefits ending with a critique of the policies that led us there.
Fuck, man, just anything other than “Accidentally stepping on your dog’s tail is the worst!” Jesus.
*I think of a comic in Tim Kreider’s The Pain, where the artist is asking for a loan from a bank. The banker replies with “Sorry, the money’s gone. There is no more money.”